Swept Under the Carpet? Servants in London Households 1600-2000


Guest blog post by curatorial assistant Eleanor Black. …it is nearly noon on washing day. The mistress of the house woke the female servants at 2 o’clock in the morning and they have been soaking and rubbing the dirty linen in urine to remove stains and grease before rinsing and hanging it in the yard. The Geffrye Museum’s ‘Swept Under the Carpet? Servants in London Households 1600-2000’ exhibition opens on a rainy laundry day in 1630. The exhibition reinterprets the museum’s eleven period room displays to represent the lives of servants in middle-class homes. Installation photograph from Swept Under the Carpet? Servants in London households, 1600-2000 showing the interventions in the period rooms Much of the physical evidence of the lives of servants over the past 400 years has been lost and it is rare to find a record of a servant’s life written in their own words. However, the guest curators Tessa Chynoweth and Laura Humphreys drew on sources such as diaries, letters, court records, autobiographies, oral history testimony and prints, paintings and drawings to piece together a picture of everyday life for servants. Tessa and Laura are AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award researchers from the Centre of Studies of Home – a partnership between the Geffrye and Queen Mary, University of London. An interesting strand of a servant’s story is their relationship with their employer’s belongings. Whilst handling, cleaning and caring for household items every day it is likely that, in many cases, servants formed a close and tactile relationship with objects in the home. Installation photograph from Swept Under the Carpet? Servants in London households, 1600-2000 showing the interventions in the period rooms This familiarity and tactility seems especially evident for servants caring for clothes and furnishing textiles. Guest curator Tessa Chynoweth’s work on domestic service in the 18th century led her to study criminal court records from the Old Bailey. In a case of grand larceny in 1762 a maid named Elizabeth Hall is a key witness. Elizabeth tells the court that she is sure that it is her mistress’ cap and handkerchief which have been stolen and she knows the textiles well. Her testimony reads: ‘I have had them in my hands often; I have washed and ironed them, and have not the least doubt about it.’ The final period room brings the story of domestic work into the twenty-first century. The scenario is a London warehouse conversion in about 2000 and the occupants of this home have left a note for their occasional cleaner asking her to wash up after she has finished cleaning and hoovering. This scenario reminds visitors that domestic work is not a thing of the past but remains a tough, low paid and often precarious form of employment. ‘Swept Under the Carpet? Servants in London Households 1600-2000’ A free exhibition running until 4 September The Geffrye Museum

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  • Elaine Fletcher on

    I was employed as a part time ’ nanny’ with a London family over the last decade. As my duties diminished as the children grew older, I took on the ironing of the household linens and the fathers shirts.

    I found myself over the years becoming increasingly fond of the textural differences of the fabrics that I was ministering to from week to week. The familiarity of the shirts, and in particular the sheets and duvet covers, and the tactile nature of my work was a pleasure in itself, and gave me an enormous sense of job satisfaction.
    But I also became aware that there was a growing sense of ownership within me.

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